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Museum director charged with "inciting religious hatred" over controversial art exhibition

(HRW/IFEX) - The following is a Human Rights Watch press release:

Russia: Halt 'Incitement' Prosecution of Human Rights Defender
Yuri Samodurov Prosecuted for Hosting Controversial Art Exhibition

(Moscow, May 14, 2008) - The Russian authorities should stop the criminal prosecution of Yuri Samodurov for hosting a controversial art exhibition, Human Rights Watch said today.

Samodurov is director of the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Human Rights Center, the venue of "Forbidden Art-2006," an exhibit that opened in March 2007 and showed provocative artwork that had been banned from several art galleries in Russia. Following an investigation opened in June, Samodurov was charged yesterday with "inciting religious hatred" for providing a venue for the show. According to the prosecutor's office, the exhibited works contain images that are denigrating and offensive to practitioners of Christianity.

The charge of inciting religious hatred is a part of article 282 of the Russian criminal code, which represents an important element of Russia's controversial anti-extremism legislation.

"Russian authorities have used anti-extremism legislation to silence political speech. Now they're using it to stifle artistic expression and prosecute a prominent human rights defender at the same time," said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "This puts a huge question mark over basic freedom of expression in Russia."

Human Rights Watch has documented several cases in which Russian authorities arbitrarily applied anti-extremist legislation to silence political opposition and other critical voices. Just last month, Savva Terentyev, a blogger from the town of Syktyvkar in northeastern Russia was charged with inciting hatred against policemen as a social group for writing negative comments about corruption of law-enforcement servicemen as part of a discussion in another person's blog. With the court hearings in progress, Terentyev faces up to three years in prison if found guilty.

In 2005, a Moscow court found Samodurov guilty on charges of incitement of ethnic and religious hatred for providing a venue for an art exhibit called "Caution: Religion!" that featured contemporary artwork reframing religious symbols. Samodurov and one of his colleagues were fined, although the prosecutor demanded a three-year prison sentence.

Should a court find Samodurov guilty on the current charges, he is more than likely to be imprisoned as a repeat offender. Under a combination of Russia's anti-extremist and nongovernmental organization (NGO) legislation, the Sakharov Center would be obligated within five days of the court ruling to issue a public statement distancing itself from him, and Samodurov will have to resign from the organization's membership. Failure to do so could result in the center's dissolution. In 2007, the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society was dissolved for failing to distance itself from its director, Stanislav Dmitrievski, who was convicted on charges of inciting hatred against an ethnic group in a flawed trial in 2006.

"In recent years, the international community has been watching the gradual suffocation of Russia's civil society," said Cartner. "Now Russia's partners must say, loud and clear, that it's absolutely unacceptable to continue ignoring obvious harassment and persecution of independent thinkers. Who will be next?"

For more information about how anti-extremist legislation is used to silence political opposition and other critical voices in Russia, please visit:
- February 2008 report, "Choking on Bureaucracy," at: http://hrw.org/reports/2008/russia0208/3.htm#_Toc190608611
- April 2008 commentary, "The danger of ranting in Russia," at: http://hrw.org/english/docs/2008/04/07/russia18450.htm
- August 2007 news release, "Russia: New Campaign to Silence Rights Activist," at:http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/08/17/russia16702.htm
- February 2006 news release, "Russia: Activist's Conviction Hurts Freedom of Expression," at: http://hrw.org/english/docs/2006/02/04/russia12604.htm

For background on 2005 charges against Yuri Samodurov for incitement of religious hatred, please visit: http://hrw.org/english/docs/2005/03/28/russia10375.htm

For further information on the 2005 case against Samodurov, see: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/65624

For further information on the Terentyev case, see: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/85589

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